Departing Vicksburg, we rode Interstate 20 west into Louisiana. Our destination was Poverty Point National Monument, fifty miles northwest. Designated by Congress in 1988, Poverty Point is the only National Monument in the State of Louisiana. Dated between 1700 B.C. and 700 B.C., it’s comprised of six concentric earthen ridges and several large mounds, the highest of which rises 70 feet above the plain. The outermost rings measure 3/4 mile in length, making it the largest and most complex earthwork and ceremonial site known in North America. While it’s generally accepted that the ridges were used for habitats, the definitive purpose of the mounds’ construction is unknown and is still debated by archaeologists.
Today, Poverty Point resides in a 400 acre park administered by the State of Louisiana. A $4 admission is charged and tram tours are offered daily starting at 9:30 am. We arrived early and, being the only two people waiting for a tour, we used a golf cart type vehicle instead of the higher capacity tram. David our guide, has worked at Poverty Point for 25 years and spent a great deal of time answering all our questions.
Crossing back into Mississippi at Greenville, we enter the Mississippi Delta: a vast board-flat alluvial plain flanked by the Mississippi River to the west and the Yazoo River to the east. Formed from countless floods over thousands of years, the Delta contains some of the most fertile land on Earth. In some areas, the soil is over 300 feet deep. Craving nutrients, cotton thrives here. The Mississippi Delta should not be confused with the Mississippi River Delta: it lies over 300 miles south in Louisiana where the Mississippi River drains into the Gulf of Mexico.
Best known for it’s blues and cotton, surprisingly the Mississippi Delta is also awash in tamales. Appearing as the subject in the 1936 blues song They’re Red Hot by Robert Johnson, the tamale has been a mainstay in the Delta diet for over a century. No one knows exactly how they were introduced to Mississippi, but the most favorable theory is that Mexican hands, hired to assist with the cotton harvest after slavery was abolished, brought the snack (and recipe) to the area. They are prevalent throughout the Delta, but the tamale mecca is the city of Greenville.
Named in honor of Revolutionary War general Nathaniel Green, Greenville is a city with a turbulent history, being destroyed several times over the past two hundred years. Shortly after the siege of Vicksburg in 1863, Federal troops burned every building to the ground. Then in 1927, intense relentless rains fell for nearly eight straight days. On the morning of April 21, 1927 Mississippi River levees began to fail. Soon, more levees were breached and within 36 hours, the highest points of Greenville were three feet under water. It took four months for the floods to finally recede.
Entering Greenville, we stopped for fuel. While at the pumps, a young man was admiring my bike. I thanked him for his comments and asked where one might find a great tamale in town. “Doe’s Eat Place” came the reply. Hmmm. I read extensively about this establishment and by all accounts, the place is known for it’s steaks: charging Chicago prices (or greater) but in an establishment that looks like it should be condemned. Sounding like a total rip-off, I made a special point to avoid. I thanked him for the tip and we moved on. After all, we’re in the tamale capital of the Delta. How hard can it be to find a good tamale restaurant? Pretty hard. After riding in a progressively larger spiral for 15 minutes, we end up backtracking to the Greenville visitors center and asked the kind lady behind the counter where we can get a great tamale. “Doe’s Eat Place.” Man, they must pay a commission to the locals! We eventually get an alternative recommendation: Hot Tamale Heaven (33.39989, -91.03195).
Hot Tamale Heaven is located in a small building with a drive-thru, small outside walk-up window, and a few picnic tables under large umbrellas. Examining a large menu nailed to an outside wall, I ordered six tamales and two fried tamales. I spoke with the gentleman serving us. His name is Aaron and he’s been working in the tamale business for over 30 years. After about five minutes, our order is ready. The tamales were flavorful and fresh but just a bit too soft and oily for my liking. With full fuel tanks and a load of greasy tamales in our guts, we set off north on Mississippi 1 to Clarksdale.
Founded by John Clark in 1848, Clarksdale was incorporated in 1882. Clarksdale is a significant destination for all blues lovers. Over the years, many blues greats called Clarksdale home: Muddy Waters, W.C. Handy, John Lee Hooker, Sam Cook, and General Nathan Bedford Forrest to name a few. This is also the general area where Robert Johnston allegedly sold his sole to the devil at The Crossroads.
We’re staying at the Riverside Hotel tonight. Initially the G.T. Thomas African-American Hospital, the building was converted to a hotel in 1944. Rooted in the deeply segregated South, the hospital and hotel were both “black” establishments and not able to shrug the racist division until the 1970s. Today, The Riverside Hotel is a vertual shrine of the blues and a designated stop on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
Pulling up to the hotel in a light rain I was literally shocked at what I saw. I had done extensive research prior to this trip and had seen photos of the Riverside Hotel. But nothing can truly prepare you when seeing this building for the first time. My initial thought was “This can’t be the right place” followed by, “My buddy must think I’m insane picking this place for an overnight.” The hotel consists of a main building along with several cabins on each side. The main building is downtrodden with rusted, junk furniture under the awnings. The cabins are equally dilapidated with walls covered in peeling paint and would make crackhouses look appealing.
While dodging the roof runoff from busted downspouts, we entered the main building. Opening a door on the right side of the hallway, we encounter two men sitting in chairs, partaking in conversation. One of the men is an economist from Australia. He’s listening to the 71 year old proprietor, Mr. Frank Ratliff (who goes by the alias “Rat”) answer his questions. My friend and I take a seat on a couch and wait to be acknowledged. We soon get caught up in the discussion and it’s about 2 hours before we start to talk business and get settled into a room. The entire place is a wreck. The Juke Joint Festival was the previous weekend and the hotel was completely occupied for the event. But it’s Wednesday and not a room had been cleaned. So we threw our gear in one room while Rat cleaned one of the few rooms equipped with two beds.
Overlooking the mess, the accommodations are Spartan. There are no en-suite bathrooms. All restroom facilities are offered between three rooms: a men’s room, a unisex room, and a women’s room at the back of the building overlooking a small creek (the Sunflower River). The individual guest rooms are small and equipped with a microwave, a small refrigerator, and separate heating and cooling units. We did not use any of the aforementioned items during our stay. There’s also a small television in each room but they are useless as the only cable signal is in the front office. The furniture is worn, busted and loaded with junk that previous guests have left behind. This is somehow a service to those patrons so that their chewing gum, lipsticks, etc. are there when they return (seriously!). So plan on living out of your luggage.
The location of the hotel is in the economically depressed south side of the tracks (not that the business district on the north side is any better). This town has more plywood than glass. The south side is predominantly a residential neighborhood and is run down with broken concrete sidewalks and thriving weeds. There is no parking lot available for hotel guests: all parking is on the street in front of the hotel. We had no problems with our bikes during our stay. Despite the intimidating surroundings, the Riverside’s location is quite good. It’s a short walk north to Ground Zero Blues Club and other establishments. The rate for two was $70 cash. Whereas the bed sheets and mattresses are topnotch, nothing else justifies the rate.
Being a Wednesday night, the only place we knew of with live music was Ground Zero Blues Club. Co-owned by Actor Morgan Freeman, Ground Zero is a restaurant / bar with a few rooms for rent on the second floor. They do their best to give the building a juke joint look. Bring your Sharpies: everything in the place is written on and we too found an open spot to leave our mark. A surprisingly good beer selection is listed on a huge chalkboard behind the bar. We took a seat at a long table facing the stage and a waitress soon takes our orders. I ordered six tamales with a side of fried green tomatoes. Whereas the tamales at Hot Tamale Heaven were soft and oily, these at Ground Zero were firmer and dry. Unlike Goldilocks, I couldn’t find any that were “just right.”
The live music for the evening was Heavy Suga and the SweeTones: a good three piece band that played for several hours. About mid-set, I’d say the place was about 3O% full. And, except for the wait-staff, no locals noted. Last call was 11:00 p.m. and we were being nudged out the door by 11:30. All in all, a decent time in a dead town on a very rainy night.